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The Ciceronian Ideal

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on February 24, 2001 16:06:06 UTC

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At first, I as inclined to write off most of the attacks on scholarly multiculturalism and the Humanities as the familiar if unedifying business of what Richard termed, "playing king of the hill." But recently this sort of play has been pushed outside the pale of polite discussion; the very words, used as labels, seem to be considered enough for this forum's rhetoricians to dismiss their opponents as defeated beyond redemption. And sadly, this wrath directed at the Humanities scorns the very kinds of intellectual distinction-making I hold most dear: respect toward rigorous education; reverence for history and philosophy; commitment to rationalism and scientific investigation.

After all, what counts in the sphere of public discourse is simply being able to use the language of culture in order to communicate any point of view -- scientific or otherwise -- effectively. Essential to this concept is the principle that the main features of even the most arcane scientific specialty can be explained to literate people. The moral dilemmas of our recent debate on cloning can be weighed. The implications of technological change can become subjects of informed public discourse -- not about technical details, but about the broad issues of the debate. And yet I have come across quite a number of nominally educated, if doctrinaire, people in this forum for whom the word "Humanities" is a withering insult, a debate-stifling dismissal, apparently on par with "dolt."

This academic rot is, alas, only the most flagrant manifestation of elitism, but it is the bane of democratic discourse. Therefore, we must be reminded that the inventors of democracy had in mind a Ciceronian ideal of education and discourse in a republic. Cicero claimed that he could explain Greek science to his fellow Romans in ordinary Latin terms -- and he did. And it was Thomas Jefferson who used these concepts in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, the Ciceronian idea of universal public discourse must remain strong in this forum and elsewhere, otherwise we are in danger of falling victim to strong-armed intimidation.

B. L. Nelson

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